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July 1960[1]

Plettenberg Bay

On the way to Jan Smuts Airport for my flight to Port Elizabeth, we park the Jag at the entrance to the Rivonia Police Station. The parking lot is mostly unoccupied early on this chilly winter morning on the Highveld. My breath vaporizes as I hurry from the car into the front office. The desk constable’s acknowledgment of my presence is almost imperceptible as he continues to work on a large ledger while he slides a thin register, House Arrest Daily Record 1960, across the counter. Quickly I locate the most recently filled entry line, and below it write the date, 5th July, 1960, in the correct column, enter the time, and print, then sign my name. Half-smiling at the policeman I hasten away. He calls after me, “Totsiens, Mejuffrou Nicolson.”

 

On the plane I settle into the seat and exhale. My apprehension that I might be detained again recedes somewhat. I am tense and I close my eyes to try and relax but the nightmare images hover under the ajar lid of my sub-conscious mind waiting to spring loose like a clutch of demonic Jack-in-the-boxes. On their faces is the painted intent of shattering my sanity: Hennie van Niekerk’s menacing leer as he snarls, “Pervert! Whore!”; the wardresses grim demeanour; the other inmates nightmare screams of fear and despair and the names of loved ones; and Rosie staring at me in the Fort’s visiting room, her look of horror mingled with love as she whispers, “What have they done to you?” Eventually I manage to shut the lid of my mind to contain them, and momentarily suspend my fears. I succumb to the smooth ride at thirty thousand feet and doze.

Four hours later we are about to alight at Plettenberg Bay on the rudimentary sand strip bush runway in a cleared field. At the last moment a white horse gallops onto the landing strip, and swearing under his breath the pilot lifts the small plane that ferried me from Port Elizabeth, circles to his right, and prepares his approach once more. Someone has chased the horse and bumping and snorting like an animal itself the plane comes to a sudden halt.

The pilot turns to me, “Sorry about that. Can’t wait for 1962 when they say there will be a new runway here and a municipal airport building with at least some radio contact. All we have now is that old wind sock.”

“Can’t be a more beautiful site for an airport anywhere in the world…” Mythic Robberg transfixes me; at times in detention I was not sure if I would ever gaze at the promontory again. “Not with Robberg lying in front of you, like a sleeping leviathan.”

A Coloured man in a faded blue boiler suit trundles the steps to the plane, and the pilot helps me disembark.

“I need to refuel.”

“Thanks for the flight…”

Walking slowly towards the small Quonset hut that offers travellers shelter from the weather, but no other amenities, my eyes remain fixed on Robberg basking undisturbed, clad in an array of green shaded vegetation.

“Welcome home,” Bert Hall, the town official who administers the airport, greets me warmly. Picking up the car keys off his desk, I return his smile. The effects of my uneven prison haircut are slowly disappearing but they give my face a lopsided appearance. Bert is shocked; he sees my dull eyes, sallow pallor and lustreless hair. A few days later his wife quotes his words to me when we meet outside the village post office, “God only knows what those bastards did to her in there.”

But now he says, “Our Liv, come back to us. We are very happy you are here…”

I inquire as to news of his family. His son was my best friend growing up. “…Four grand children now…keeps us all busy.”

The pilot enters the hut to sign the logbook. “See you in a few weeks, Miss Nicolson. I have already radioed SAMI that you are safely here.”

At the doorway he grins, and makes a thumbs up sign. “Have a lovely holiday,” he shouts as he always does and disappears into the plane.

 

Tired from the day’s tension and travel, I retire early to the master bedroom and lie awake in the large bed; this is my refuge, this lovely old house, Milkwood, built by my grandfather almost sixty years ago when Plettenberg Bay was an isolated Eden. Before air service, and when I was a child, the journey was a three to four day adventure from the Highveld to the Eastern Cape over many mountain passes that were sand roads and dangerous to traverse; there are still no train tracks laid through forests and across gaping ravines. Thankfully in 1960 Plett remains a remote haven. The baby I was, the little girl, the gawky ten-year old, the rebellious adolescent, the young bride, are with me in the bed where perhaps my father, and certainly (I had figured the dates) I was conceived.

In the morning seated in the warm kitchen and drinking steaming mugs of tea, I stare appreciatively at the winter garden sloping on the hillside where shy loeries call and respond  “kwok-kwok-kwok” in the red-berry bushes. The telephone jangles in the country stillness but I do not want to talk to anyone yet from my life in Johannesburg, my family know I am safe. A key is turned in the kitchen door lock and Blossom’s dark brown, weathered face with wisps of grey hair escaping from under her colourful doek peers around the door.

“Ahi, Missie Liv, you are here. You are home.” She grins toothlessly.

Feeling a rush of affection sweep over me like a low tide wave on Robberg beach, my instinct is to leap to my feet and hug the bent over figure, Blossom, a feature of Milkwood, a stanchion. But the gesture will embarrass the older woman and instead I rise to shake her hand. Blossom bobs a subtle curtsy. Gesturing for her to pour a cup of tea, I anticipate her demurral. We fall into a familiar patter.

“Ten past nine, I knew you would be at the kitchen door. So the railway bus was on time?” Blossom nods, still staring at me as if she can scarcely believe I am in the room. “Still stops at The Crags?”

“Missie Liv?”

“Yes…”

“I say this only one time…your mother told me you were in trouble…I pray for you every night…now I see that you suffer. They are bad, bad people…but now I cook all your favourite foods…put some meat on those bones…” Blossom shakes her head, “Ahi, so sorry. So sorry. May Jesus …”

Rising again and interrupting the old woman, I clasp one of her hands in both of mine. “I’ll be OK. Some Plett air, some walks on Robberg beach, some food from my Nana…” There are tears at the corner of Blossom’s rheumy eyes. “Don’t cry, don’t cry… I’ve cried enough for us both.”



[1] The first section of the book is based on Liv Nicolson’s fragments of notes written at Milkwood in July 1960 and published for “the historical record”.

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